“Vegans, who in their right mind would live that way”. It is easy to write off vegans as pretentious, self righteous, or overcompensating; but, can’t the same be said for anyone touting strong beliefs? The “type” exists no matter the subscription service: the paleo-bro, the finger-wagging conservative, or the hemp-bag wearing, yoga-posing instagram vegans. If there is a structure, something to place faith or stock into, there are bad actors that threaten its image for everyone involved. I was a poor kid with a huge chip on my shoulder, and between my outspoken atheism, cross-fitting, and “super meaningful” acoustic songs, I was a model for millennial pretension.
Then, I became a father.
Few things lift the veil of your own narrow-mindedness to reveal how little that Neutral Milk Hotel debate matters quite like having a baby, and all of that pretension fades into purpose.
By now, anyone reading must be wondering how this ties into veganism. It is important to start at the catalyst in this particular discussion, because without my daughter I’m not sure I ever would have arrived at this particular destination.
Having been raised a true carnivore, it was meat at every meal, every day, with only the occasional vegetable to guest-star for 24 years. I never once stopped to question why, and I certainly never wondered if it was healthy.
My parents were proud people, and often attributed our Native American heritage to the choice of “fine” meats we often partook in. In hindsight, they used various principles like heritage to excuse the choices they made out of convenience and social pressures (such as excessive drinking and smoking). And when my father passed away in August at the age of 61, the vacancy sign left in his wake shone just as brightly as each warning sign we’d let pass us by.
Diagnosed with high cholesterol nearly a decade previously, my father was given a few lifestyle changes by his doctor and tried to abide by each of them. The instructions were simple: less salt, more whole grain, and fewer cigarettes. Done, done, and with some effort, done. Yet still, a blood clot left my father bedridden and in severe discomfort only a few years later. At the first opportunity, we recounted his diet and habits with his doctor hoping for some sort of road-map to success. Instead, the only response provided was that “these things come with age”, a notion I refused to accept. So, we left with a bundle of pricey prescriptions and no answers.
And after scraping together our last penny to pay for that prescription every thirty days and following the doctor’s lifestyle instructions, that same blood clot took my father's seven short years later. He worked hard, ate a diet he thought was healthy, and, sadly, drank too much. He died at nearly the exact same age as his father before him, and I was not going to follow suit.
We all disregard the decisions made by our parents as stubborn, lazy, or just plain strange. In reality, they were/are simply chasing a vision of success they formed at the same age we started viewing their every decision as flawed. Just do a little better. At least provide more. “When I have a family, I will never put them through that”. No matter the situation, we have all expressed similar mantras to ourselves in the pursuit of the best we have to offer.
Still, it is difficult to face death and not question its cause. Truth be told, my father had myriad contributors to his death - nearly all worsened by a ten year struggle with depression (a topic for another day). The promise to turn out different is a matter of deciding an end, or at least which end not to arrive at; but, how on earth does one go about taking that first step? For me it was simple, my father’s habits had ultimately killed him. So, examining my own habits had to be step one.
I had a history of self destructive behavior, but since marriage and fatherhood I’d settled down to more comfortable means of compromising my own health. I’d transitioned from recreational, and at times quite hard, drug and alcohol use to an affinity for snack foods and self-excused laziness. I was comfortably uncomfortable, and when I examined my behavior I realized the effect my dietary habits had on my lifestyle. Exercise was laboring, concentration was elusive, even simple tasks required a wind-up before the pitch. Being in the U.S. Navy as an intelligence analyst, I'm expected to maintain a certain level of mental and physical fitness and this was unacceptable.
And there was the solution, eat healthier and let inward health drive outward. Don’t get me wrong, this was far from the first time I’d had this epiphany; and, ever time, it was like a lightning bolt to my motivation. Yet, time and time again I’d fallen off the fruit and veggie filled wagon. This time, it was bigger than me. So without my usual “I’ll start first thing on Monday”, I (along with my remarkable wife, Emily) began our journey as vegetarians. And from August of 2017 to early February of 2018, we went uninterrupted.
That was three birthdays and three holidays without any meat down the hatch. We were killing it, and while we were feeling happier and healthier, we knew we were on the precipice of something really significant. I felt a gnawing (and no, it wasn't hunger) that I was not doing enough, as if I was half-assing this journey to cleaner living. For the first time in a long time, I was thinking about more than just my immediate existence. The environmentally consciousness, critical, and deeply ambitious side of myself I'd thought had long abandoned me had returned, and there was much to say.
Do you remember the last time you felt truly exhilarated by your thoughts? How about the last time you let that exhilaration propel your actions? For my entire life, I’d been raised to love and respect this gift of a world and the opportunities afforded to me; and, yet, every action I made was contrary to that belief. Now, there are so many facts, studies, and opinions on the benefits of healthier living through a vegan lifestyle to yourself and the planet. But, I'll let those words resource speak for themselves.
Personally, the proof was in the animal-free pudding. Within two weeks, the increases in cognitive ability observed at work, the impacts on my physical and sexual health (ask the wife), and finding the inspiration and motivation to launch my own website were staggering. Stubborn weight vanished before my eyes as diet and exercise yielding more results than ever, gone were the unexplained bad moods and over-reliance on caffeine to get me through the day, and I found I was a better father, husband, friend, and colleague. Unexpected side-effects included: a drastic decrease in the amount of waste generated by our home, radical changes in my digestive health and sleeping patterns, and my hair is much softer.
What ultimately led me to being vegan was the truth that I’d never felt quite right living how I did, and it was contrary to the promise to my father - I’d give better to my family. I’d give them a better me to remember me by.
This was too important to not do.